«The First thing we did was plant a bunch of flowers». Supporting an Entire Ecosystem through a Smallholding and the next generation of organic growers
The Next Generation of Growers
In recent years, there has been a drive in initiatives to support the next generation of growers spearheaded by the Ecological Land Cooperative or ELC. Their mission is to create low impact agricultural ‘starter farms’ and to campaign for policy changes in food growth and land treatment.
One strategy adopted by the ELC is to buy up plots of land across England and Wales; then rent this land to tenants who share an environmentally aware approach to agriculture. This enables young growers to gain a foothold within the industry without having to raise the capital to commit to long-term land ownership. In terms of a forward-thinking strategy, the ELC also seeks to broaden public awareness on the value of organic, pesticide free farming methods.
In 2018, the ELC acquired a field of 12 hectares in Arlington in East Sussex, UK; formerly used for the conventional farming of maize. A two-year conversion process with the Soil Association Project saw the restoration of the land prior to its division into three plots that were allocated to successful applicants.
Aweside Farm by Sinead Fenton and Adam Smith
Among the three custodians of this land is Aweside Farm which is operated by Sinead Fenton and Adam Smith. Both of whom quit their corporate jobs in London in order to follow their commitment to environmental issues. «We started with a small project allotment project in London which opened our eyes to nature». The establishment of the 4.5 hectare Aweside Farm represents a project that encompasses growing edible flowers, fruit and vegetables.
Another aspect key to developing the culture of smallholdings across the United Kingdom is the connection to the local community. In a move away from supermarket supply chains and the import of produce from abroad; the ELC encourages farmers to engage with their neighbours whether in terms of retail or outreach.
In the context of the former, the wholesale company Shrub Provisions has played a significant role; in enabling smallholdings to distribute their products to restaurants and consumers across the South East of England. «It reduces the need for extra travel and pollution».
Aweside Farm is like many smallholdings and farms that supply to local restaurants and pubs; in order to demonstrate the potential of English seasonal produce and 0km dining.
Another strategy employed by Fenton and Smith is a community garden that allows locals to come and volunteer on their land and share the produce with their neighbours. This inclusive mindset shows that innovation in engagement methods can augment the impact that smallholdings can have on British food culture.
Working with the Earth
A recurrent problem with land newly acquired for conversion into smallholdings is that the land has suffered due to conventional farming methods heavily dependent on pesticides and invasive agricultural methods. When Fenton and Smith arrived at the plot in Arlington «the ground was like brick».
There was no topsoil and the natural land of the South Downs region where Arlington is located meant that the earth was like compacted clay. «The land had been treated badly». A solar farm in the neighbouring field led to run-off causing the ground to be at times like a water table. Making the land suitable for agriculture required a return to blank slate. As Smith recounts, «we had to listen to what the ground wanted and really work with the earth».
Agroforestry is a land use management system that is increasingly being employed to benefit the environment through diversity. This method was employed by Aweside Farm on the establishment of the smallholding in 2020. The pair created 400 meters of new hedgerows by planting 5,000 trees in addition to an orchard of fifty fruit trees with an emphasis on endangered British apple varieties.
Increasing the soil health
The goal of doing so, even if it will take a decade for these trees to reach maturity, was to provide a wildlife habitat, to reduce the effects of water run-off and to increase oxygen levels in the environment. Over the course of 2020, another key focus was to increase the soil health.
They follow a no-dig policy which means that they do not disturb the soil and instead lay down nutrient rich compost over a layer of cardboard laid over the ground. Over time, this process stops the growth of weeds by blocking the light source to the ground and encourages the flourishing of a rich growing soil.
Seedlings are first nurtured in polytunnels before being planted into the 170 beds that they have created using the principles of succession planting and crop rotation to nurture the earth. Evidence that this approach is working can be observed in the increasing earthworm population which is a sign of earth that is regenerating itself.
A Smallholding as an Entire Ecosystem
A movement towards organic, regenerative farming is in line with a new generation of smallholdings across England and Wales. There is an increasing realization that the methods deployed in previous generations were self-serving at the expense of the environment and the wildlife who also depend on it. Biodiversity is an ever more important consideration but the question is often how to foster it.
Edible flowers have become a defining element of Aweside Farm, in part because there are few other initiatives that are cultivating flowers organically for human consumption. Fenton and Smith are, however, keen to emphasize that their focus on flowers is not just for retail purposes.
«We have to think about the entire ecosystem and not just ourselves». They explain how focusing on commercial produce is an underlying problem; with market gardens as they do not provide any nutrients to the wildlife vital to a healthy farm. «The first thing we did was to plant a bunch of flowers in the centre of our plot».
Doing so was not only symbolic but was the start of their mission. To encourage the growth of an insect population. Attracting bees, butterflies and other insects to the smallholding has the direct benefit of pollenating the other crops that they grow.
The Challenges of Organic Farming
It is impossible to discuss the establishment of an organic smallholding without discussion turning to the topic of climate change. England is seeing increasingly unpredictable weather. with a shift in the natural oscillations of the seasons.
A pragmatic approach to the challenges that this brings is vital in order to resist resorting to conventional methods. Eschewing the use of pesticides and invasive farming not only generates organic produce. But is beneficial in encouraging a self-supporting agricultural system when managed properly. «Seeing forthcoming problems helps to work out how and where to deal with the land».
In England, 2021 was a tough year with May bringing late frosts and constant cloud cover. «In 2021 we were in constant flood until August» recalls Fenton. Crop loss and poor harvests was a problem common to smallholdings and farmers across the country.
Resilience and positivity
«It was our first proper growing period and a tough year, but we still made enough to pay the bills». Others were not so fortunate; a testimony to the uncertainty that climate change represents to agricultural models.
Adverse weather conditions have continued to negatively affect crop yields. The most recent event was Storm Eunice which hit England in February 2022. And it was the most powerful to hit the South coast of England since 1987.
Over the course of three days, gale force winds of up to 122 mph; meaning that regions were left without power. Countless trees were felled and farmers had to face the consequences. One of the three polytunnels at Aweside Farm was entirely destroyed, with its metal frame twisted into an unrecognizable form.
Resilience and positivity is once again key. «We transformed the polytunnel into new beds for planting crops and flowers side by side». Smallholdings that view challenges in this way offer a positive chance for change.
Aweside Farm, Arlington
Aweside Farm is among a growing number of smallholdings being established across England and Wales. Smallholdings enable growers to engage with the local community, often with a focus on organic methods and a regenerative approach. The Ecological Land Cooperative is enabling new growers to establish their own projects and to innovate agricultural methods.